FEATURE STORY: Building Inspiration – Over The Years And Into The Future

In 1994, the Asbury Park Press profiled Group C in a feature headlined “Trade Publisher Survives The Lean Years.” The photo that accompanied the profile shows Ed, seated, at work with Susan and Ted Coene.

By Jack Rogers
From the November/December 2010 issue

When he decided to jump into the publishing business after serving his country in the Korean War, Ed Coene had a clear-eyed vision of what he needed to do to carve out a lucrative niche in the trade-publishing sector.

Ed looked at a batch of classified announcements of available commercial properties and saw the potential for a comprehensive magazine that would provide corporate site selectors everything they needed to know to make their expansion, relocation or new facilities decisions. In a small collection of property listings, he envisioned a powerhouse directory that could serve as the Who’s Who of economic development and site selection.

The Site Seekers’ Guide, along with regular issues of Business Facilities and Today’s Facility Manager magazines, two thriving and innovative websites, and a series of unique business-to-business events anchored by our highly successful LiveXchange gatherings—all stand as monuments to the goals that Ed set for Group C and the road map he gave us to achieve those goals.

Gigabytes Of Shoe Leather

When he started out in 1969, Ed had a confident determination that old-fashioned shoe leather and forward-thinking ideas ultimately would be rewarded by success. He also knew that he didn’t want to be a cog in someone else’s publishing machine.

After a brief stint at Fairchild Publications, Ed developed a successful steel trade magazine he named 33, after the SIC code for primary metals. The pub was a big hit, but the fledgling publisher did not have the funds to maximize its potential. McGraw-Hill provided an infusion of cash, but then exercised its rights to buy the magazine. Although a cushy job at the publishing giant based at New York’s glittering Rockefeller Center was part of the package, it only took about six months of sitting among the suits on Sixth Avenue for Ed to decide that he could achieve something greater on his own.

“I was an entrepreneur. I couldn’t take the bureaucracy,” Ed recalls. “And, frankly, I thought I could make more money on my own.”

Ed found a partner and started publishing a series of industrial buyers guides, which he described as “mini-Thomas Registers.” Just as the enterprise began to build up a head of steam, Ed’s partner defected to the actual Thomas Register, leaving Ed with the task of repaying the loans from the buyers guide venture.

Undeterred, Ed took over the start-up American Industrial Properties Report and molded it into Business Facilities magazine. He raised his sights from industrial buyers guides and produced the first truly national economic development directory, which he called the Site Seekers’ Guide.

“I knew if I got the right type of salesperson, we could create a successful monthly publication,” he says.

Always the innovator, Ed stayed ahead of the curve and embraced the looming digital revolution long before his print counterparts ended their embrace with linotype. In 1983, a year before Apple unveiled its first Macintosh, Group C already was writing its own proprietary software package for publishing. In 1986, the company took the lead in digitizing its in-house typesetting and graphics division. Ed also computerized Group C’s telemarketing division, or, as he puts it, “used our databases to call our readers and set up appointments” with the advertisers.

“We tried to do everything with computers,” Ed remembers. “We jumped in, even if we didn’t completely understand it. There was no email at that time, but we picked up a few machines and hooked them together and it was great. Our salesmen liked it so much, they wanted to sell the program, but by then everybody was out there with software.”

But if you distill Ed Coene’s recipe for success to its essence, the core principle has nothing to do with technology—and everything to do with relationships.

“It’s all about cultivating people,” he explains. “We used to have about 10 advertisers from a bunch of little towns around Orlando, Florida, and every year we would go down there and have a luncheon with everyone. They became our pals and they all ran ads. The other books didn’t do that.”

To grow the company, Ed supplemented the core magazine with a bevy of local contract publishing initiatives. In 1987, Group C bought New Jersey Meeting Planning Guide, an annual publication touting convention hosting opportunities in NJ. In 1992, the company launched a directory division, combining the NJ Meeting Planning Guide with its first regional directory, the Monmouth County Business to Business Directory. The division also published an economic profile for Somerset County and TradeLink, an export guide for Public Service Electric & Gas Co., and it developed publications for the Delaware River Region Tourism Council and three seasonal pubs on fishing and hunting for the state Department of Environmental Protection and Energy.

While Group C was able to supplement the income from sponsor-paid publications by selling advertising, the risk inherent in products tied to elected decision-makers in state and local government was hammered home in 1992, when a new governor decided to hand Group C’s contract to produce the state Department of Travel and Tourism’s New Jersey Travel Guide, a $500,000 revenue-generator, to another publisher.

Ed realized that Group C couldn’t thrive being so closely tied to the political landscape. “It was diversify or die,” he says.

When diversification came to Group C in the late 1980s, it was a new generation of Coenes leading the charge.

The Next Generation

Ed is literally and figuratively the founding father of Group C. Now “semi-retired,” Ed’s mantle of leadership in the company has been passed to his son, Ted, and daughter, Susan, who today are co-presidents of Group C Media. Both of the Coene siblings have inherited their father’s tenacity, entrepreneurial spirit and appreciation for the importance of innovation.

When Susan joined the family business in the 1980s, female executives were greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts in U.S. business and had to cope with the prejudice of low expectations. Without hesitation, Susan chose to make her mark in a decidedly “un-feminine” sector: she created Today’s Facility Manager magazine in 1988 and made it an indispensable benchmark for corporate executives responsible for equipment purchases and capital expenditures for their firms.

Giving men purchasing guidance about the nuts and bolts of heating and ventilation systems and other mundane facilities needs was not expected from a woman in those days, and Susan quickly realized she would have to bring her “A” game. She brought in other female pioneers, including TFM Editor Heidi Schwartz (who joined the company in 1989), and TFM set out boldly to challenge perceptions.

“We had to act like men,” recalls Susan, who began her career as the only woman in a 50-man unit at Hearst Publishing. “I had to belly up to the bar, and be as tough as a man.”

Five years and numerous 25-percent growth cycles later, TFM had firmly established itself as the leader in the field. Susan credits Ed Coene with giving her the grit to persevere.

“I was extremely lucky to have a father who believed that I could do whatever I wanted, whether I was a male or a female,” Susan says. “That is highly unusual in a man from his generation. He told me you get out there and you’ve got a job and you’ll work.”

Today, Susan is putting Group C’s innovative credo to work to navigate the rapidly evolving opportunities offered by online publishing and the emerging phenomena of social networking. Under her leadership, TFM is moving quickly to make its products available in the rapidly emerging mobile Internet market.

Ted Coene cut his teeth on the New Jersey-centric contract publishing initiatives that formed the core of Group C’s business in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, as executive publisher of Business Facilities, Ted developed a dynamic diversification strategy that today is referred to internally at Group C as “the three-legged stool:” print, online and events.

Ted built upon the magazine’s established brand equity as a leading location adviser by moving into the online venue with the businessfacilities.com website. Then, in the early 2000s, Ted engineered a concept he believed would revolutionize the traditional business-meeting regime of trade shows and costly business trips.

“I walked around at the big trade shows and saw state and local economic developers spending an inordinate amount of money to maintain huge booths at these shows. I didn’t think some of these vertical shows were the right place for them to be,” Ted recalls. “For example, the chances of finding a scientist roaming around the BIO show who also needed a new facility location was like finding a needle in a haystack. There needed to be a more targeted way for the economic development community to meet prospects.”

Ted created a process to vet companies in target industries to determine if they had projects and were willing to look at a variety of locations. “We had to overcome the understandable tendency of companies to keep their projects secret, and we had to make sure they weren’t limiting their search to a small area,” he notes. “The key was to find people who were earlier in the game, who were committed to relocating or expanding, but had not narrowed their search to one particular state.”

In 2005, Ted’s concept came to life in the first Business Facilities LiveXchange event, held at the Chateau Elan in Braselton, GA. At the first gathering in Georgia and the five annual LiveXchange events that followed, site selectors with pre-certified, job-creating projects found themselves face to face with economic development representatives for the primary locations across the country they were scrutinizing for their new facilities.

LiveXchange’s unique opportunity for three days of intense, up-close discussions and dealmaking in a comfortable resort setting—supplemented by timely and informative presentations and seminars from industry leaders—was embraced from the outset by participants as the one event that clearly gave them maximum return for time invested.

Ted amplified the LiveX value proposition by developing a proprietary software program that customizes each participant’s itinerary on a minute-by-minute basis and makes sure that the best-matched partners come together.

“We ensure that we are efficient not only with the time spent at the event by participants, but also in terms of who they are meeting with,” the Group C co-president explains. “Our goal is to make certain that there is not one meeting at LiveX that is not productive. Every meeting has to be productive for both parties involved. That’s the challenge, and I think we have met that challenge with LiveX.”

Today’s LiveXchange now brings to the table key players from a wide range of high-growth industry sectors who are preparing to make capital investments approaching $1 billion, creating thousands of jobs with overall payroll topping $100 million.

The Next 40 Years

Despite the hardships that have cut across the economic landscape since the fall of 2008, Group C is approaching the future with optimism and confidence that a firm foundation is in place for future growth.

“With LiveXchange and our other products, we have created a template for the type of business processes that are going to become central to successful development moving forward,” Ted says.

“In the economic development world, the discussions have to take place at a higher level than simply handing something out at a booth at a trade show,” he says. “You really need to have more elaborate communications, and LiveXchange does that.”

Surveying the beehive of activity at Group C, Ed Coene exudes confidence that the next 40 years will be as productive as the last. “We’ve got some pretty good young people here,” he says with a smile.

To read this article as it originally appeared in the magazine, click this link for a PDF.